Violet Trace caused a scandal when she turned up at the funeral of 18-year-old Dorcas Manfred with a knife that she used to cut the dead woman’s face. Dorcas was dead at the hands of her lover, Violet’s husband, Joe, and 50-year-old Violet–soon to be dubbed Violent–guided by some other self pushed her way into the funeral and up to the coffin, ceasing her stabbing only when the ushers abandoned all their lessons about respecting their elders and dragged Violet out of the church.
In her introduction to Jazz, Toni Morrison says that she used the essence of jazz music to structure this novel:
I had written novels in which structure was designed to enhance meaning; here the structure would equal meaning. The challenge would be to expose and bury the artifice and to take practice beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.
The novel is set in 1920s Harlem, and the story of Violet, Joe, and Dorcas is the unifying thread that ties the novel together, the main tune on which the composition is built. The narrator, an unidentified “I,” tells of these events from multiple angles, varying the theme a little each time. We get the history of these characters, going back for generations. We hear others’ commentaries on the characters’ actions. We read the narrator’s speculations about their motives, and we begin to wonder about the narrator’s own role in interpreting the tune to her own ends.
The City itself vamps underneath the narrative, calling to the characters when they live in the country and speaking to the characters’ hunger when they’re in the City. It urges them to act on their feelings, even drawing them to their own destruction, as it does for Dorcas, who yearns to break free from the strictures her aunt Alice has placed upon her. The narrator describes Dorcas’s hunger:
I’ve seen swollen fish, serenely blind, floating in the sky. Without eyes, but somehow directed, these airships swim below cloud foam and nobody can be turned away from the sight of them because it’s like watching a private dream. That was what her hunger was like: mesmerizing, directed, floating like a public secret just under the cloud cover. Alice Manfred had worked hard to privatize her niece, but she was no match for a City seeping music that begged and challenged each and every day. “Come,” it said. “Come and do wrong.” Even the grandmothers sweeping the stairs closed their eyes and held their heads back as they celebrated their sweet desolation.
I’m glad I read Morrison’s introduction and explanation of her technique because it helped me understand what she was doing in this sometimes chaotic and bewildering novel. However, it didn’t really help me enjoy it. I almost put it down a couple of times, thinking I should try another Morrison instead, maybe coming back to this after I’ve read more of her work and gotten more accustomed to her voice. (Before this, I’d only read Beloved, which I thought was a very good book but didn’t quite fall in love with.)
However, every time I picked it up and read a few more pages, some fragment of the story would draw me in. The writing is great, and the central characters, with all their strange longings, made me keep reading. But then new characters would turn up, and their relationship to the story would be unclear, and I’d put the book down again. Ultimately, the novel’s structure kept me at a distance. I could hear the drums, but just couldn’t feel them strongly enough.
For those of you who’ve read more Morrison, is there another of her books that you’d recommend?